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Former FEMA head Michael Brown was in charge of emergency response during Hurricane Katrina. (REUTERS)
Former FEMA head Michael Brown was in charge of emergency response during Hurricane Katrina. (REUTERS)

Michael Brown

Former FEMA head Michael Brown: Sandy should teach us all to just chill Add to ...

Hurricane Sandy proved once again you can’t beat Mother Nature.

She alone was able to interrupt a presidential campaign in the United States, something many of us who have been inundated with campaign stops, incessant campaign commercials, and non-stop polls could only dream of doing. But what else can we learn from this superstorm that brought New York, Washington, and the environs between, to a standstill?

President Barack Obama learned a lesson in federalism, one that Mitt Romney, as a former governor of Massachusetts, should already inherently understand. That lesson is that state and local governments are, as always, the true first responders. So while the President goes to the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to show he’s on top of the situation, governors and mayors are making the real, life-saving, politically difficult decisions: who to evacuate and when.

Federal agencies such as FEMA have a role. FEMA’s is to be that “honest broker” between the states and various localities. But at the end of the day, it is still each of us, as individuals, who are responsible for our own safety and well-being.

So what are we, as mere mortals in this situation, supposed to learn from this act of God?

On national television Tuesday, I told New Yorkers they needed to “chill.” The correspondent’s immediate reaction was, “Hey, we’re New Yorkers, we’ve been through 9/11 and blackouts, we can handle this.” To which I replied with some startling examples of why all of us must learn to chill in these situations.

More than seven million people were without electricity. That means, absent a prepper’s stash of batteries, generators and solar-powered chargers, seven million people didn’t have access to laptops, microwaves, ATM machines, televisions, forced-air heating, subways and commuter trains, and all the thousands of modern conveniences we have come to depend upon in this hyper-technological society. You might not be among those seven million today, but you could be next time.

So I would ask New Yorkers and you: How long can you go without all of those conveniences? A couple of days? A week? Two weeks? During the 2004 Florida hurricane season, some Floridians were without power for up to four weeks. Mentally fast forward four weeks without electricity and all that it powers and ask yourself how calm, cool and collected you’d be by then.

Thousands of utility workers, rescue workers, firefighters and health-care workers will work incessantly to restore life to normal, but it takes time. While those workers and those without power want the same thing – the electricity back as soon as possible, the subways running, the microwaves cooking – a disconnect exists between what they can do and what we want them to do.

They can’t restore the trains until the stations are cleared of flood waters. Only then can damage be assessed, repaired and power restored. That could take days, if not weeks. They can’t repair the power lines until the roads are cleared. Then the lines are restored mile by mile, and someone, somewhere, is at the end of that last mile.

Hurricane Sandy should teach us to be prepared, willing to live without the modern conveniences of elevators, computers and refrigerators. Hurricane Sandy should teach all of us to chill.

Michael Brown is the former undersecretary of homeland security and director of FEMA under president George W. Bush. He is the author of Deadly Indifference: The Perfect Political Storm and blogs at http://michaelbrowntoday.com

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